MOVIE REVIEW - I Am Legend
Major Spoilers Ahead. Read at your own peril.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson's 1954 novel about the last man on Earth, is one of my favorite books. Like other perennial favorites such as Watership Down, Footfall and All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, I Am Legend is a book I return to fairly often. I still have my original copy. tattered and worn, from more than 20 years of regular reading.
The novel has been adapted to the screen twice before and neither version was particularly good. Richard Matheson wrote the initial screenplay for THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, removing his name from the credits by the time it was all said and done. That oughta tell you something. And Charlton Heston's OMEGA MAN is just unwatchable.
It is then that I ventured to the theater with some concern.
The movie, as they often do, ventures wide from the book. Our protagonist is not just a random surviving Every Man as in the novel, but rather the military scientist charged with working the outbreak of a virus killing most it infects and rendering others as something akin to zombies who come out only at night. The movie creatures do not target Robert Neville, the main character, personally by name. In fact, they do not even know where he lives.
This is a big variance from the novel.
In the book, the creatures know him by name. And Neville knows one of them as his nextdoor neighbor. They taunt him. They beat and tear at his home - terrorizing him every night.
In the book, Neville hunts the night creatures by day while they hunt him at night. Whereas in the film, Neville maintains a strategy of avoidance except when he needs a fresh test subject as he seeks a cure for their condition.
This is not a criticism, merely a point of difference.
There are a number of missed opportunities in the movie. For instance, the creatures become more than the mindless monsters we are initially given to understand they are. Neville, a scientist, doesn't notice, doesn't care.
It seems clear to me that Neville captured one of the monster's mates. Yet that connection is never made, explained.
It is rare that I comment on something so technical as sound engineering, but I feel I have to in this instance. The sound was amazing in I AM LEGEND. I felt fully immersed in the world largely due to the brilliant audio work. Whether it be the clicking of deer hooves, or breaking glass, or the skittering of zombies - I was there!
Will Smith is perfectly cast in the role of Robert Neville. He is - as far as we know at the beginning of the film - the lone human survivor. Smith expertly portrays the character's isolation while also drawing us into a story challenged with very few options for expository dialogue.
Smith makes it looks easy - the same way Tom Hanks does. There is an organic nature to his performance. Some actors (and, Dustin Hoffman, I am talking to you) adopt an acting form where they are no longer becoming a character, they are ACTOR-AS-CHARACTER. Smith is so incredibly natural in his performance that you forget that he's not Robert Neville.
Bravo, Mr. Smith.
For companionship, Robert Neville has only his German Shepherd Sam (short for Samantha) played by the acting dog known as Abbey. Much has been made of the relationship on-set between Smith and Abbey and, man, it shows on screen. Smith and Abbey are perhaps the finest onscreen couple since Hepburn and Tracy!
Having read the book, I knew that things would not end well for Sam. And they didn't.
In Sam's death scene, Neville holds her in her last moments of life, singing to her, reassuring her.
I was at once taken back to Christmas time several years ago when our dog Akasha (a Malamute/Shepherd mix) was succumbing to cancer. Suzanne and I held her, talked to her, and gave her water by hand.
I sobbed in the theater, much as I had the day 'Kash died.
The woman sitting in the row in front of me was a basket case.
From out of nowhere, two other survivors appear and just as out of the blue as they are we have another issue presented. There is no God, Neville declares upon finding that his new house guest believes herself to be sent from the Most High. What kind of God allows everybody, everywhere to either die or become a monster?
Now, I think this a valid theme. I just question how it was presented. This is the type of question that needs deeper study. Asking the question in the last twenty minutes of the film is a disingenuous grab for gravitas.
The book ends with the death of Robert Neville, the last human dying away to a new race of intelligent beings. His name becomes legend among the new race of creatures because he had hunted them so viciously. One imagines that his name is evoked to their children much as the bogeyman's is.
Similarly, Neville dies in the film. Here he sacrifices himself to save the recently found cure for the monsters and to safeguard the escape of the two other survivors. Neville dies while the survivors make their way to the safety of Vermont where other survivors have gathered. Armed with the cure we are given to believe that thing end well, the zombies are cured, humanity is restored to its place of grandeur.
It is a Hollywood movie at Christmas time, I concede. I will forgive the relative happy ending.
Mostly, I like this movie. I rate the performances of Abbey and Smith an A+. Technical details such as sound and SFX, also an A+. But the way the story is managed - particularly in the last twenty minutes - I give this version of I AM LEGEND an overall B+.
Posted by Aron Head
at 9:45 AM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007 10:00 AM CST